March 23, 2022

By Nancy Plum

It is difficult enough to present a professional opera production in the best of times, but over the past two years, it must have seemed almost impossible. Opera companies nationwide struggled to succeed in a medium considered a coronavirus “superspreader,” and regional companies in particular have been putting their artistic toes in the water very slowly these days. Boheme Opera NJ, which has been presenting opera in the area for the past 33 years, took a big leap back into the performance arena this past weekend with a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s classic Rigoletto at the Patriots Theater at Trenton’s War Memorial. Led by conductor Joseph Pucciatti, Boheme Opera NJ’s fully-staged and supertitled production brought together a talented cast of singers and instrumentalists, accompanied by innovative digital sets and well-paced music.

As popular as Rigoletto is today, the plot of Verdi’s 1851 opera was considered surprisingly shocking in its time. Based on a Victor Hugo play and with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, Rigoletto had a storyline perceived as making fun of royalty. Verdi moved the story’s location to Italy and reduced the protagonist in rank to duke, thus appeasing the Naples censors to which he was required to submit the libretto.

Celebrating more than 30 years of opera production, Boheme Opera NJ was riding a wave of artistic growth in 2020, when this production was originally scheduled, and the company bravely moved the performance site to Patriots Theater. A two-year hiatus on live opera performance upended the company’s upward momentum, yet this past weekend’s performances provided an opportunity for “spring reawakenings.” Friday night’s production (repeated Sunday afternoon) featured six singers making Boheme Opera debuts and nine singers performing their assigned roles for the first time.

Rigoletto fit well into a 19th-century formula in which the tenor is the romantic lead and the soprano his leading lady, with a villainous bass lurking in the background. A baritone hunchback in Rigoletto changed the formula slightly, with Verdi adding his trademark unforgettable melodies into the musical mix. Verdi operas also often have their own signature features, such as a show-stopping coloratura soprano aria and poignant father-daughter conflict. Boheme Opera’s production featured solid singing throughout, but much of the evening belonged to Robert Balonek singing the title role. As Rigoletto, Balonek was able to scurry through crowd scenes with elastic physicality as well as express parental tenderness toward his daughter Gilda. He was alternately sprightly, animated, and conniving, with a solid voice carrying well into the house. Balonek showed particularly sensitive dynamics in an Act I soliloquy, while both scheming with the professional assassin Sparafucile and offering protective advice to Gilda.  more

“ON BECKETT”: McCarter Theatre Center presented “On Beckett” on March 18. Created, directed and performed by Bill Irwin, the show played at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. Above: Irwin considers, among other questions, whether the “Waiting for Godot” playwright’s work is “natural clown territory.” (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Award-winning actor, writer, director, and clown Bill Irwin presented On Beckett at McCarter on March 18. The entertaining monologue excerpts passages from the author and playwright’s writings, interspersed with comedy routines and affable, thoughtful commentary. Early in the evening Irwin poses an overarching rhetorical question: “Is Samuel Beckett’s writing natural clown territory?”

On Beckett is the result, and culmination, of Irwin’s extensive experience performing Beckett’s works. He has acted in multiple productions of Waiting for Godot, including the 2009 Broadway production; and he performed in American Conservatory Theater’s 2012 production of Endgame.

“Mine is an actor’s relationship to Beckett’s language; but it’s also a clown’s relationship,” Irwin explains to this writer in an interview for (the March 16 edition of) Town Topics. “I’m hoping to welcome you in, and in doing so, re-welcome myself back in, because I am forever rediscovering this writing — the wit in it.”

On Beckett premiered at Irish Repertory Theatre in 2018, following development at ACT. The McCarter presentation is produced by Octopus Theatricals, in partnership with the Lewis Center for the Arts.

Irwin’s other original stage works include The Regard of Flight, The Happiness Lecture, and Old Hats. He won a Tony Award for Best Actor for his performances in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Fool Moon (the latter is created by Irwin and David Shiner). Television credits include Elmo’s World; film credits include Rachel Getting Married and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. more

March 16, 2022

By Nancy Plum

The World War II account of Anne Frank, with its immortal story of hope amid a harsh reality, seems particularly timely in these days of current events. As a result, Princeton Pro Musica may find that its presentation this past weekend of a choral setting of Anne Frank’s diary has more impact now than its original performance date two years ago, especially as the chorus returns to live performance.  Originally scheduled for the spring of 2020 to mark the 75thanniversary of the end of World War II, British composer James Whitbourn’s oratorio Annelies not only honors the life and legacy of Anne Frank but also finds parallels with current fears and anxiety of uncertain realities. 

Anne Frank wrote in her diary, “It seems like years since Sunday morning. So much has happened. It’s as if the whole world had suddenly turned upside down.” Princeton Pro Musica Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau referenced these words when welcoming the audience back to a live Pro Musica performance after a two-year hiatus. With music by Whitbourn and a libretto by author Melanie Challenger, Annelies is a “musical portraiture” for chorus, orchestra, and soprano soloist providing a snapshot of Frank’s life. Joining Pro Musica and the accompanying orchestra last Sunday afternoon at Richardson Auditorium was Princeton graduate and operatic soprano Lily Arbisser. 

The voice of Anne Frank was not confined to the soprano voice, but could be heard throughout the piece from orchestra, chorus, and soloist. Whitbourn incorporated musical references to the sights and sounds of 1940s Amsterdam into the work, beginning with an “Introit” capturing bells and a vibrant city atmosphere. In this opening movement, Arbisser sang as a cantor while the women of Pro Musica presented a subtle unison line. Whitbourn used choral monophony and unharmonized wordless lines sung by the chorus as a vehicle for certain words of the text, and Pro Musica’s presentation of these passages in the opening movement set well a sense of foreboding for what was to come. more

March 9, 2022

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra coupled a contemporary symphonic work with a beloved 19th-century Czech composer this past weekend with a pair of performances in Richardson Auditorium on the campus of Princeton University. Led by PSO Music Director Rossen Milanov, the ensemble presented a piece recently premiered, as well as works by Antonín Dvorak and Igor Stravinsky, both of whom made their homes in the United States at some point. Joining the Orchestra in these “Edward T. Cone” performances was magnetic Spanish cellist Pablo Ferrández.

Saturday night’s concert (the performance was repeated Sunday afternoon) opened with the one-movement Amer’ican of Michigan-born composer James Lee III. Composed in 2019, Amer’ican was inspired by Dvorak’s New World Symphony, along with 18th-century artwork of Indigenous Americans. Lee’s piece began serenely, with Scott Kemsley’s solo flute introducing an orchestral palette in which the instruments seemed to be on their own. The winds, especially a pair of clarinets, were effective in executing swirling passages, with a varied percussion section providing musical effects evoking Americana. Flutists Kemsley and Mary Schmidt carried much of the melodic material in the work, with elegant solos provided by other winds and brass, including oboist Gilles Cheng and trombone player Carlos Jiménez Fernández. Lee was inspired by Dvorak when writing this piece, and shades of the Czech composer could be heard in the solo clarinet lines, gracefully played by Andy Cho. Conductor Milanov well-handled the work’s transitions between lyricism and driving rhythms. 

Prize-winning cellist Pablo Ferrández has been acclaimed as being a captivating performer, complete with technique, spirit and expressivity. Ferrández was featured in Dvorak’s 1895 Cello Concerto in B Minor, written while the composer was living in the United States, and subsequently revised in response to the death of a family member.  more

March 2, 2022

By Nancy Plum

Princeton University Orchestra returned to the Richardson Auditorium stage last week with a concert featuring both guest conductors and soloist winners of the University Orchestra Concerto Competition. The performance Friday night (the concert was repeated Saturday night) showed convincingly the impact of University Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt’s long tenure with the Orchestra and the depth of the University music program.

Soprano Marley Jacobson, a University senior who had a leading role in last season’s  “pandemic” virtual opera La Calisto, led off the evening with a performance of a concert aria by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart composed the orchestrally accompanied “Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio!” for soprano voice and oboe obbligato for his sister-in-law and as an interpolation into another composer’s opera in which she was performing.

Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt led the ensemble in this work, demonstrating well-blended winds and horns, with an especially elegant oboe solo by Vedrana Ivezic. Jacobson sang Mozart’s concert aria of plaintiveness and emotional confusion with the lyrical poise and vocal self-assuredness of the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro. Ivezic’s contrasting oboe solo line was equally vocal in character, and the two instruments together were often delicately answered by pizzicato playing from the lower strings. From a 21st-century viewpoint, Mozart seemed to like torturing sopranos with huge intervallic skips, and Jacobson was well prepared for the technical challenges of this piece.

The classical music tradition of Armenia has been represented for the past 100 years by composer Aram Khachaturian. Originally intending to become a biologist, Khachaturian turned instead to music and composed works capturing the exotic colors and rhythms of the region, as well as the Mugham melodic themes which fascinated him as a child. Khachaturian composed the Adagio pas de deux as part of his 1956 ballet Spartacus, and the movement contained some of the most memorable melodies in the entire ballet. Conducting this piece in Friday night’s concert was University senior Montagu James, also a violinist and composer who has had several works commissioned by Princeton University Sinfonia.   more

February 23, 2022

“THE OK TRENTON PROJECT”: Performances are underway for “The OK Trenton Project.” Written by David Lee White, Richard Bradford, and members of the OK Trenton Ensemble; and directed by Passage’s Artistic Director C. Ryanne Domingues, the play runs through February 27 at Passage Theatre. Above, from left, are Richard Bradford, Wendi Smith, Kevin Bergen, Carmen Castillo (seated), and Molly Casey Chapman. (Photo by Jeff Stewart)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In August 2017 the Associated Press ran an article with the headline, “Not OK? Sculpture of hand gesture moved over gang worries.” The subject of the piece was Helping Hands, a metal sculpture of a hand making the “OK” sign, which was installed on a city-owned vacant lot on the corner of Trenton’s Perry and Montgomery streets.

Helping Hands was created by students (ages 12 to 15) from Camp Mercer, a summer camp operated by HomeFront, a nonprofit group. The sculpture was crafted in collaboration with artist Eric Schultz of Grounds For Sculpture, along with Trenton-based community development organization Isles, Inc.

The AP article notes that the students chose the “OK” sign “because they felt the peace sign was overused.” After the mayor’s office received anonymous complaints that Helping Hands resembled a gang symbol, the sculpture was removed from city property.

The controversy surrounding the removal of  the sculpture — and reactions to other works of art — is explored in The OK Trenton Project, a new play that is being presented by Passage Theatre. The docudrama was developed through Passage’s PlayLab program, over a period of four years.

This iteration of The OK Trenton Project marks the first full mainstage production of  “Trenton Makes,” a season that will feature plays about the city. “Both true and fictional, each piece highlights the capital city’s triumphs and challenges while celebrating its unique community,” promises a promotional email from Passage. more

By Nancy Plum

With a 22-appearance history of performing with Princeton University Concerts, the Takács Quartet has made a home at Richardson Auditorium and has become a good friend of the series. The four members of the string ensemble — violinists Edward Dusinberre and Harumi Rhodes, violist Richard O’Neill, and cellist András Fejér — returned to Richardson Auditorium last week after a nearly two-year hiatus performing in the area for an eclectic program featuring music for string quartet and an instrument rarely heard in Princeton. Joining the ensemble for last Thursday night’s concert celebrating the series’ return to live performance was bandoneón and accordina virtuoso Julien Labro, and the five musicians together created an impressive evening of innovative classical music.

Born in France, Labro has brought music for the Argentine bandoneón to the forefront of the classical and jazz arenas. Most often heard in tango ensembles, the bandoneón creates its sound by pulling and pushing actions forcing air through bellows as the player routes air through reeds by pressing buttons on either side of the instrument. Labro has been applauded for his brilliant technique and imaginative arrangements, several of which he presented with the Takács Quartet. He connected with American composer Bryce Dessner when performing on Dessner’s score to the film The Two Popes, and when composer and performer were further introduced to the Takács Quartet, the seed for an imaginative commission was planted. Dessner’s Circles, performed by Labro and the Takács Quartet, interweaved rhythms and polyphonies of all five instruments, with a great deal of free expression from all the musicians.

Dessner’s Circles was co-commissioned by Princeton University Concerts and the consortium Music Accord, of which University Concerts is a member. The work began with the bandoneón contrasted with a chipper string accompaniment, and Labro showed particularly fast fingers on repeated motives and offbeat rhythms. The melodic ostinato became more ornamented as the piece went on, and the players together were able to cohesively move the music into other colors and shadings.  more

February 9, 2022

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO) began 2022 with a lush “new beginning,” performing music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to open the New Year in an opulent orchestral way. Led by guest conductor Kenneth Bean and featuring guest solo violinist Alexi Kenney, the PSO presented three works which captured the musical atmosphere of the lives and times of each of the composers.

Currently assistant conductor of the PSO, Kenneth Bean has an extensive career leading both adult and youth orchestral ensembles. Bean’s conducting strength throughout the concert was clearly finding dynamic variety, drama, and theatricality in the three pieces performed. The works presented of Coleridge-Taylor, Sibelius, and Dvorak provided ample opportunity for an imaginative approach to orchestral color, and Bean took advantage of every possibility.

Beginning with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s 1898 Ballade in A minor, PSO demonstrated an ability to play from refined to lush and with dynamics ranging from rich and powerful to almost imperceptible. London-born Coleridge-Taylor became well-known as a composer from at an early age, drawing the attention of 19th-century compositional powerhouse Sir Edward Elgar. Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade was premiered through a commission by Elgar, immediately showing the work to be cinematic and attention-getting. Bean and the PSO began the piece in dramatic fashion, with very steady horns coupled with a lean unison string color. Bean allowed the orchestral sound to develop gradually, and the ensemble shifted musical moods well. Equal parts fanfare and simplicity, this one-movement multi-section work was played with characteristic lushness. A duet between clarinetist Andy Cho and bassoonist Brad Balliett showed elegance and precision, with flutist Julietta Curenton and Mary Schmidt adding a fluttering musical icing on the orchestral texture.

Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ 1904 Violin Concerto in D minor fit right into the opulent late 19th-century concerto tradition, but rather than being an equal partnership between orchestra and soloist, this work was clearly for the soloist. Guest violinist Alexi Kenney was well up to the challenge, leaning into melodic lines and demonstrating physical playing. Throughout his career, Kenney has been active as both soloist and commissioner of new works; his most recent recording is accompanied by a “visual album” pairing music with contemporary sculpture.  more

“SCENERY”: Performances are underway for “Scenery.” Presented by Maurer Productions OnStage, and directed by Judi Parrish, the play runs through February 13 at Kelsey Theatre. Above: married, veteran actors Richard Crain (Thom Carroll, left) and Marion Crain (Laurie Hardy) bicker, as an opening night finds them wearily discussing their life in the theater, and as a couple. (Photo by John M. Maurer)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Early in Scenery, veteran actor Marion Crain complains about being given new lines on opening night. Her husband, costar Richard Crain, tartly replies, “They gave us new lines last week; you just didn’t learn them.” Marion retorts, “I was busy learning the old ones.”

This exchange encapsulates the themes and content of Scenery, which is being presented at Kelsey Theatre. Playwright Ed Dixon scripts flippant conversations (which include adult humor and strong language) that achingly probe anxieties about time passing by and leaving us behind — specifically, as we grow older.

In addition to his work as a playwright, Dixon is a seasoned composer and award-winning Broadway and concert performer. His voice is heard on several recordings (including the Kennedy Center premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, conducted by the composer). As such, Dixon’s own career offers him ample material for a play about longtime actors.

The play received its premiere from New York’s Montauk Theatre Company in September 2001 (five months after the Broadway opening of another comedy about theater and its practitioners: The Producers). Five years later, Grand Rapids Press reported that Dixon considers a subsequent production, presented at Saugatuck, Michigan’s Mason Street Warehouse, to be “the world premiere of a substantially rewritten script.” more

January 26, 2022

“OUR TOWN”: Performances are underway for “Our Town.” Presented by Kelsey Theatre and Shakespeare 70, and directed by Jake Burbage and Frank Falisi, the play runs through January 30 at Kelsey Theatre. Above: the Stage Manager (Curt Foxworth, center) and the cast. On ladders are George (Jake Burbage, left) and Emily (Kate Augustin). (Photo courtesy of Jake Burbage)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

On January 22, 1938, Our Town premiered at McCarter Theatre. Thornton Wilder wrote to a friend that the performance, which was “sold out with standees,” was an “undoubted success.” An unimpressed Variety declared that the play would “probably go down as the season’s most extravagant waste of fine talent” — an ironic assessment since Our Town won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama later that year.

Eighty-four years later (almost to the day), Our Town is being presented by Shakespeare 70 at Kelsey Theatre. Directed by Jake Burbage and Frank Falisi, this smooth, deft production honors Wilder’s intentions, while subtly giving additional focus and insight to a central character.

In terms of the visual aesthetic, this Our Town generally does not stray from what audiences might expect after seeing photos of past productions. In keeping with Wilder’s request for “no scenery,” Judi Parrish (credited with “props”) furnishes the stage with simple wooden chairs, on which cast members gradually sit before the performance begins.

Although the play is set at the beginning of the 20th century, costume designer Brittany Rivera generally eschews period costumes, letting most of the cast wear casual contemporary outfits. Among the notable exceptions is the good-naturedly pedantic Professor Willard (an exuberant Ray Fallon), whose bright yellow suit matches the character’s personality.

As if to blur the lines between stage and audience, the house lights are not dimmed until the performance has been underway for several minutes. The Stage Manager (Curt Foxworth) delivers the customary pre-performance reminders about emergency exits and silencing electronic devices, then seamlessly goes on-script to give a detailed introduction of the play’s setting. more

December 22, 2021

By Nancy Plum

The musical world may still be celebrating the 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven, but no composer has stood the test of time better than Johann Sebastian Bach. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center has traditionally proven this almost every year in Princeton by presenting a concert of Bach’s joyous 1720 Brandenburg Concertos. The 20-member Chamber Music Society returned to McCarter Theatre Center last week to perform these complex, well-crafted yet accessible works. Thursday night’s performance in McCarter’s Matthews Theatre both dazzled the audience with the players’ technical abilities and created a festive musical mood suitable for the holiday season.  

Bach elevated the Baroque concerto form to new heights with the six works for solo instruments and orchestra compiled and dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg. Each concerto featured a different combination of instruments, and the Chamber Music Society was able to augment the variety by showcasing different musicians in each work. The ensemble grouped Bach’s concertos by orchestration, with the rich instrumental palette of Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F Major opening the program. Violinist Daniel Phillips effectively led the ensemble in quick tempi in the opening and closing movements, with oboist Stephen Taylor and bassoonist Marc Goldberg leading the dialogs between the winds and strings. The pair of oboes were well matched in the second movement “adagio,” with the closing dance movements showing graceful dynamic swells among the instruments and especially adroit playing from violinist Arnaud Sussman.

Consistent throughout the six three-movement pieces was a “continuo” ensemble of cello, double bass, and harpsichord. The three cellists of the Chamber Music Society rotated through the concertos, but double bass player Joseph Conyers and harpsichordist Kenneth Weiss unfailingly provided a solid foundation to all six works. Weiss had the opportunity to show the capabilities of the harpsichord in Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major, in which the harpsichord doubles as continuo and soloist. The Chamber Music Society began this concerto in a fast and light tempo, with the orchestral color augmented by the addition of flutist Ransom Wilson. Although the harpsichord was hard to hear at times when with the rest of the ensemble, Weiss’ fast runs and nimble playing were clear when the instrument was on its own, especially in the first movement cadenza. Wilson provided a subtle icing to the instrumental sound, maintaining a delicate dialog and precise dynamic swells with violinist Sean Lee. more

December 15, 2021

“WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME”: The North American tour of “What the Constitution Means to Me” has played at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre (December 7-12). Directed by Oliver Butler, the play depicts a debate between Jocelyn Shek (left) and playwright Heidi Schreck (Cassie Beck, right) about the merits — and deserved fate — of the Constitution. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

The North American tour of What the Constitution Means to Me has played at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre December 7-12. Heidi Schreck’s play, which depicts a debate over the merits — and deserved fate — of the founding document, pulled the enthusiastic opening-night audience into the argument.

Schreck drew inspiration from a series of debates in which she participated as a teenager, giving speeches on what the Constitution meant to her. Money awarded at these contests helped pay Schreck’s college tuition. The play is set at one of the American Legion’s oratorical contests (in Wenatchee, Wash., where the playwright was raised).

A finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, What the Constitution Means to Me was commissioned by True Love Productions; the 2017 debut at the Wild Project in New York was followed by a West Coast premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. An off-Broadway run at New York Theatre Workshop was followed by the 2019 Broadway production.

For much of the play the debate about the Constitution appears to be internal. Initially Schreck re-enacts her debate performance from the point of view of her 15-year-old self; although aware of injustice, she believes in the Constitution. (“I loved it. I was a zealot,” she recalls.) Later, as she learns more about the history of the country — and the women in her family — the adult Schreck angrily disowns her youthful idealism, rejecting long-ingrained beliefs.  more

December 8, 2021

By Nancy Plum

Princeton University Orchestra presented its winter concerts this past weekend in Richardson Auditorium on the campus of the University. Rather than look toward traditional holiday music heard at this time of year, the Orchestra continued to announce its arrival in the 2021-22 season by performing two challenging and majestic symphonic works, featuring a recent graduate who had a solid musical career while at the University. 

Led by Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt, the concerts Friday night and Sunday afternoon were about courage — in particular from guest soprano soloist Allison Spann, a member of the Princeton class of 2020. Nothing showed her fierceness as a vocal performer more than her choice of David Del Tredici’s Final Alice for the 2019 Princeton University Orchestra Concerto Competition, the winning of which earned her a spot in these concerts. The University Orchestra presented selections from this quirky yet vocally demanding work in this past weekend’s concerts, inviting the audience into what Pratt called the “wacky world of Lewis Carroll set to the equally wacky music of David Del Tredici.” Spann saw this piece, which musically sets the last two chapters of Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as a source of escape from the past year and a half, and through theatricality and command of the very difficult vocal lines, brought the audience at Richardson Auditorium along with her.

Spann came onstage in character from the outset — looking completely lost and eventually sitting cross-legged on the stage ready to tell the audience a story. Although equally narrated as sung, the selections from Del Tredici’s Final Alice performed took a great deal of voice throughout, asking the soprano soloist to sing in a very high register for extended periods of time and maneuver demanding intervals over a cacophony of orchestral accompaniment. Spann was continually stretched to the top of her vocal range, but was always in command of the difficult music and dynamic demands while simultaneously communicating well with the audience. A particularly expressive moment was an aria sung by Spann accompanied by harpist Leila Hudson.   more

November 24, 2021

By Nancy Plum

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra launched the second of its online fall performances last Wednesday night with a multi-media presentation of 19th-century music. Recorded last May at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and led by NJSO Music Director Xian Zhang, this concert focused on “A Woman’s Voice” in programmatic music, performance, and poetry. Although the Orchestra presented only three works, last Wednesday night’s performance was dense with text and backstories to the music, accompanied by poetry of local writers. Joining the Orchestra was one of opera’s great legends, soprano Renée Fleming.

French composer Georges Bizet’s four-movement suite L’Arlésienne (The Girl from Arles) originated as incidental music to a failed theatrical play.  New Jersey Symphony Orchestra performed the third movement “Adagietto,” scored for strings alone. Under Zhang’s direction, the strings of the Orchestra began the movement introspectively; with a smaller than usual ensemble of strings, the violins reached the heights of phrases well, with an especially lean melody from the first violins. The performance of this piece was preceded by a reading of the poem “Elizabeth, NJ” by New Jersey poet and artist Michelle Moncayo. 

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra introduced Richard Wagner’s romantic Siegfried Idyll with the poem “Convergence” by New Jersey native, poet and educator Jane Wong. Wagner, one of the towering composers of the 19th century, composed the one-movement Idyll as a “Symphonic Birthday Greeting” to his wife at the time. Zhang and the Orchestra began the piece with the same light touch heard in the Bizet work, with more strings and the addition of winds and brass. A solo line from flutist Bart Feller soared above the orchestral palette, complemented by pastoral solo playing from oboist Alexandra Knoll. Clarinetist Pascal Archer also provided expressive solo passages as the strings gracefully maneuvered repeated melodies and rhythmic patterns. A quartet of principal string players presented melodic lines well punctuated by solo horn player Christopher Komer, and conductor Zhang and concertmaster Eric Wyrick added a playful character to the music. Zhang brought the Idyll to a joyous close, aided by rich orchestration and playing of the German trumpets for which Wagner’s music is known.    more

“MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING”: Theatre Intime has staged a reimagined “Much Ado About Nothing,” presented November 12-21 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Directed by Katie Bushman, Shakespeare’s romantic comedy is transplanted to the era of World War I. Benedick (Solomon Bergquist, center left) and Beatrice (Cassy James, center right) have a bickersome courtship, which is jeopardized by an action taken by Claudio (Harit Raghunathan, left) at his wedding to Hero (Lauren Owens, second from left). Onlookers: Leonato (Hank Ingham, second from right) and Don Pedro (Alex Conboy, right). (Photo by Elliot Lee)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare has Balthasar, a musician, sing: “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more; men were deceivers ever.” This world-weary comment, about the timelessness of dishonesty in relationships, would seem to offer directors latitude to reimagine the period in which this comedy is set.

Princeton University’s Theatre Intime has presented (from November 12-21) a production that takes advantage of this dramaturgical license. Director Katie Bushman transplants the play — first published in 1600 — to the end of the First World War.

This is clear as soon as the audience enters the theater. We hear popular songs of that period, including Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and, more thematically relevant, George M. Cohan’s “Over There.”

Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon (portrayed by Alex Conboy) returns home from winning a battle. With him are two of his soldiers: Claudio (Harit Raghunathan) and Benedick (Solomon Bergquist). The play is set at the home of a noble, Leonato (Hank Ingham); he invites the soldiers to stay for a month.  more

November 17, 2021

By Nancy Plum

Westminster Choir, the flagship choral ensemble of Westminster Choir College of Rider University, returned to live performance this past weekend. Led by conductor Lynnel Joy Jenkins, the 35-voice mixed chorus presented a program centered on “Returning to Joy” in Rider University’s Gill Memorial Chapel on Sunday afternoon. The program of a cappella and lightly accompanied choral works featured music both past and present and took the audience at Gill Chapel from “mourning” through “singing and new song” and “comfort” to “celebration,” capturing the myriad of feelings and atmospheres over the past 18 months. As Jenkins explained, this concert musically depicted “a tumultuous journey of returning to our beloved choral singing after a storm of life.”

Conductor and music educator Lynnel Joy Jenkins has built a successful career on cultivating community in the choral classroom while inspiring artistry. Her local connections range from a Westminster Choir College degree to conducting the Resident Choir of The American Boychoir School to her current position as artistic director of the Westrick Music Academy and conductor of the Princeton Girlchoir Ensemble and Concert Choir. From her worldwide choral clinical experiences, Jenkins has brought to choral programming a multicultural approach well evident in Sunday afternoon’s concert.

Jenkins opened the performance with three choral pieces of grief from three different time periods. The text of 16th-century composer Tomás Luis de Victoria’s “O Vos Omnes” was derived from the biblical book of Lamentations, and Westminster Choir sang Victoria’s a cappella Latin motet with clear harmonies and a well-focused sound. Westminster Choir has been renowned for a number of choral strengths, including solid blend, impeccable tuning, and the ability to produce an endless stream of choral sound, all of which were in evidence throughout this concert.  more

KELLI O’HARA: Stage and screen star Kelli O’Hara (above) performed November 13 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, marking her debut there. For the concert, which included a selection of show tunes and standards, the Tony Award winner was accompanied by a quartet of instrumentalists. (Photo courtesy of McCarter Theatre)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Stage and screen star Kelli O’Hara performed at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre this past Saturday night. The concert featured a selection of classic and contemporary show tunes, as well as a few stand-alone songs, that have had special significance for the Tony and Drama League Award winner.

Her stage credits include numerous musical theater roles on Broadway, as well as Metropolitan Opera performances in The Merry Widow and Cosi fan tutte. Screen credits include the web series The Accidental Wolf, Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, and HBO’s upcoming The Gilded Age.

O’Hara made her McCarter debut with the November 13 concert. However, one of the musicians who accompanied her — percussionist Gene Lewin — is an alumnus of Princeton University and its Triangle Club.

Dan Lipton was the musical director and pianist. Guitarist Justin Goldner and bassist Alex Eckhardt completed the well-balanced quartet.  more

November 10, 2021

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO) presented the second of its live fall 2021 concerts this past Thursday night. Under the direction of Music Director Rossen Milanov, the Symphony performed a program centered on two Viennese masters at McCarter Theatre Center’s Matthews Theatre. Joined by guest piano soloist Shai Wosner, the ensemble performed music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Schubert, as well as a 21st-century piece by American composer Evan Williams.

PSO opened Thursday night’s concert with Williams’ one-movement The Dream Deferred for string orchestra and harp. Williams’ 2017 piece draws attention to the school-to-prison pipeline of individuals whose dreams are deferred by a derailed education and subsequent prison experience. With melodies written by New York area youth incorporated into the music, The Dream Deferred was inspired by the poetry of American author Langston Hughes. 

The symphony began the work with a dark unison from the strings and sharp accented jabs against a dissonant palette. Principal violist Stephanie Griffin played agitated viola passages depicting conflict and harpist André Tarantiles added to the intensity with precision and a percussive effect. The overall musical impression was one of tragic lost lives, contrasted by a melodic duet between the two violin sections. Conductor Milanov led the orchestra well through this accessible piece, effectively conveying the musical question of a provocative social issue in today’s world. 

Israel-born pianist Shai Wosner has been known for pairing classical masterpieces with contemporary works, so it was no surprise to hear Williams’ piece followed by a standard from Mozart’s piano concerto repertory. Mozart composed his 1784 Piano Concerto No. 15 in B-flat Major in a concertante style, with wind solos complementing the solo keyboard playing. The wind sections of PSO spoke well in the McCarter acoustic, with principal oboist Roni Gal-Ed elegantly carrying a great deal of the secondary melodic material of the first movement. Wosner displayed a light touch on the piano from the outset, with crisp unisons in tandem with the orchestra. Wosner kept the ornamental figures clean (especially an extended trill and playful cadenza) and played in a detached style to match the resonance of the hall. more

“HOW TO RAISE A FREEMAN”: McCarter Theatre and Bard at the Gate are presenting a prerecorded video of Zakiyyah Alexander’s “How to Raise a Freeman.” Directed by Reginald L. Douglas, the video is available via McCarter’s website. Above: Keith (Malcolm Barrett, top), Dean (Jamie Lincoln Smith, middle left) and Greg (Francois Battiste, middle right) teach Marcus (Aric Floyd, bottom) some lessons he will not learn in school. (Digital image courtesy of ViDCo)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter is presenting How to Raise a Freeman online as of November 3. The theater’s website describes Zakiyyah Alexander’s play as a “dark comedy that asks how a middle-class, African American family can keep their son alive in a world where every 28 hours a Black man is killed by law enforcement.”

The pre-filmed production is a collaboration between McCarter and Bard at the Gate. Founded by Paula Vogel, Bard at the Gate is “designed to become a widely accessible platform for powerful, overlooked plays by BIPOC, women, LGBTQ, and disabled artists,” according to the series’ website.

How to Raise a Freeman opens Bard at the Gate’s second season. The curators are Vogel; McCarter’s Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson; and the Bard at the Gate Advisory Council. Princeton Public Library is hosting a Bard at the Gate Watch Party Series, the first installment of which took place on November 4.

Alexander is an award-winning writer whose other works include the plays 10 Things to Do Before I Die, The Etymology of Bird, and the musical Girl Shakes Loose. Her television credits include 24: Legacy, Grey’s Anatomy, and Hunters. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, Alexander is co-founder of the Killroys, an organization that focuses on parity in American theater. more

November 3, 2021

By Nancy Plum

After eighteen months, students at Westminster Choir College of Rider University were able to perform choral music live this past weekend. In a short but certainly welcome concert at Trinity Cathedral in Trenton on Saturday afternoon, the 75-voice Westminster Symphonic Choir performed a single work well representing the profoundness and solemnity of the past year and a half. Although usually directed by James Jordan, the Symphonic Choir concert his past weekend was led by guest conductor James Bagwell and accompanied by the Westminster Festival Chamber Orchestra. 

Composers have been creating works from the Mass for the Dead “Requiem” text for centuries. Settings by such composers as Verdi and Berlioz were full of apocalyptic terror, but the 1947 Requiem for chorus, soloist, orchestra and organ by French composer Maurice Duruflé has served as a musical standard for the opposite — full of forgiveness and comfort. Through this piece, conductor Bagwell led the chorus and chamber-sized orchestra to convey the devastation of this past year and offer peace and resolution for the coming season. Princeton, Duruflé and Trinity Cathedral have come together once before, when in 1972, Duruflé helped prepare the Princeton High School chorus for a performance of his Requiem at the Cathedral, with his wife, Marie-Madeleine as organist. 

Conductor Bagwell began the nine-movement Requiem in a quick-moving tempo, with the Symphonic Choir women singing ethereally as if angels were leading the dead on their journey. Bagwell maintained good control over the cadences, leading the ensemble to the high point of the movement on the text “et lux perpetua luceat eis.” This movement flowed effortlessly into a second movement showing a solid sound from the alto section leading the melodic material. Duruflé based much of the music in this work on Gregorian chant, and organist Clara Gerdes brought out well the chant lines through the registration combinations on Trinity’s four-manual organ.  more

October 27, 2021

By Nancy Plum

This season, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) has been putting its toes into the waters of live performance slowly, presenting concerts in select halls in the state while maintaining an online presence. The Orchestra will be returning live to Princeton after the first of the year, but area audiences were able to enjoy a high-quality digital performance by the Orchestra players last week. Led by Music Director Xian Zhang and joined by superstar violinist Joshua Bell and soprano Larisa Martínez, NJSO launched an online concert of three composer prodigies: Felix Mendelssohn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Henryk Wieniawski.

Violinist Bell was a prodigy himself, debuting with The Philadelphia Orchestra at age 14 and setting concert stages ablaze ever since with virtuosic technique and passionate musical expressionism. Bell and his wife, soprano Larisa Martínez, were a musical power couple during the last 18 months of the pandemic, exploring new arrangements of existing repertoire and creating imaginative digital content. In the NJSO concert, recorded at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in May 2021 and launched last Wednesday night, Bell and Martínez joined the Orchestra for two elegant concert arias by Mendelssohn and Mozart.

Mendelssohn’s concert aria “Ah, ritorna, età dell’oro,” was part of a commission of Mendelssohn from the Philharmonic Society of London and was published after the composer’s death. Composed in the “scena and aria” form popular at the time, Mendelssohn’s work features a soprano conveying the text with violin obbligato. Mendelssohn often composed two melodic paths in the same piece, bringing them together toward the end, and this work was no exception. Against a subtle orchestral accompaniment, Bell began the violin part with grace and sensitivity. Singing from memory, Martínez performed expressively in a clear soprano tone, with an especially light and translucent top register well matched by the violin. The text, beginning with “Return, golden age, to the abandoned earth,” certainly has a connection to these times, and Martínez well captured both the words and Mendelssohn’s refined classical roots.  more

October 13, 2021

By Nancy Plum

After more than a year and a half, Princeton University Orchestra has resumed live performance in Richardson Auditorium, so one would think the musical world has returned to normal — but not quite. More than 100 strong, the University Orchestra performed two concerts this past weekend, but with players in masks (including the winds), no formal intermission, and ushers reminding audience members to keep their masks up and not congregate in the hallways, it was clear that things were slightly different than before the University shut down last spring. It was also evident that multi-page printed programs may be a thing of the past — audiences on Friday and Saturday night could refer to cards listing the program with a QR code to scan for more detailed information.

Some things never change, despite an 18-month “Luftpause” in the Orchestra’s performing life. The Richardson space on Friday night’s first of the Orchestra’s Peter Westergaard Memorial Concerts was full of students eagerly waiting to see their friends onstage and Princeton residents who turned out to hear the full orchestra resonate in the Richardson acoustics. Under the direction of conductors Michael Pratt and Mariana Corichi Gómez, the University Orchestra delivered a performance of both elegant and opulent symphonic music.

To celebrate the return to Richardson, Pratt opened the concert with a violin concerto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart which brought out the composer’s playful side. The chamber-sized Orchestra was joined in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major by recent Princeton University graduate Hana Mundiya. A member of the class of 2020 who has an incredible number of performance credits for someone her age, Mundiya fit right into the light and refreshing orchestral texture which conductor Pratt elicited from the ensemble. Pairs of flutes and horns added color to the orchestral palette but were not overpowering, with the oboes demonstrating particularly well-tuned thirds throughout the work. Mundiya’s solo violin emerged elegantly from the musical texture in the first movement, with repetitions of phrases stylistically delicate. The ornamental figures in the solo line were clear, and Mundiya effectively took her time in the cadenza closing the first movement.  more

“EVE’S DIARY”: Theatre Intime has staged a reading of “Eve’s Diary,” presented October 10 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Directed by Anna Allport ’23, the show dramatizes Mark Twain’s retelling of the Creation story. Adam (Ally Wonski, standing left) and Eve (Oriana Nelson, standing right) meet. Seated, from left, are Mel Hornyak, Jill Leung, Elliot Lee, Madeline Buswell, and Sheherzad Jamal. (Photo by Elliot Lee)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Eve’s Diary is a witty but poignant re-imagining of events in the Garden of Eden. Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) writes from the title character’s point of view, adding intermittent comments from Adam. First published in 1905, this anachronistic version of Genesis is strikingly relevant in its satire on conflicts in relationships between men and women, as well as its consideration of the search for one’s identity and purpose.

Twain’s story first appeared in the Christmas issue of Harper’s Bazaar, and subsequently in the anthology Their Husband’s Wives. In 1906 Harper and Brothers published it as a book. It is a successor to Extracts from Adam’s Diary (1893).

On October 10 Princeton University’s Theatre Intime presented a live, in-person staged reading of Eve’s Diary, at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Both the cast and the audience were masked.

Director Anna Allport reveals in a program note that she performed a monologue from the story in high school, and was enamored of the work’s “delightfulness and surprising complexity,” as well as Eve’s endless curiosity, headstrong spirit, and unshaken optimism.”

Because the presentation is a staged reading, the only production element is the lighting by Greyson Sapio. An apple, placed in the center at the edge of the stage, is the only prop. However, there is enough movement to provide visual interest. Allport keeps the pacing tight by avoiding pauses between monologues. Twain’s prose is divided among seven actors; four actors share Eve’s lines, and three read for Adam.

As Eve, Oriana Nelson opens the show. She stands up, and — with spring in her step — moves toward center stage. “Saturday — I am almost a day old,” she recites, gesturing expressively. Twain immediately imbues Eve with a mixture of self-confidence and philosophical introspection. “I feel like an experiment,” she muses early in the story, though she senses that her experiences will be “important to the historian some day.” Nelson accentuates Eve’s self-confidence.  more

October 6, 2021

By Nancy Plum

After a year of innovative and imaginative outdoor and online programming, Princeton Symphony Orchestra invited audiences back to hear the ensemble in person and indoors this past weekend at McCarter Theatre Center’s Matthews Theatre. Joined by solo violinist Simone Porter, Princeton Symphony, at full strength and led by Music Director Rossen Milanov, performed music of Beethoven and Mendelssohn, as well as a piece by contemporary American composer Jessie Montgomery. 

Orchestras often begin the first concert of the new season with the “Star-Spangled Banner.” In this celebration of restarting indoor concerts with a live audience, Milanov chose to open Sunday afternoon’s performance with a contemporary setting of this country’s national anthem — one which represents the wide diversity of populations within this nation with musical inspirations drawn from a variety of American sources. 

New York native Jessie Montgomery is one of this country’s most prominent up-and-coming composers and one with strong local connections. Currently a graduate fellow in music composition at Princeton University, she has been commissioned extensively by musical organizations nationwide. Montgomery’s 2014 Banner was commissioned to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the American national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  In this piece, Montgomery created a rhapsody on the anthem, designed to capture what Montgomery describes as the “contradictions, leaps and bounds, and milestones that allow us to celebrate and maintain the tradition of our ideals.” 

Princeton Symphony Orchestra began Montgomery’s work with shimmering in the violins, contrasted with fragments of the familiar national anthem melody from other instruments. The violins were lean, and the lower winds well-blended, and the ensemble played cleanly in the acoustic of Matthews Theatre. A string quintet within the orchestra, comprised of the principal players of each string section, conveyed melodic material well, and an understated brass color was provided in some passages by hornist Jonathan Clark.  more

September 22, 2021

By Nancy Plum

For the second consecutive year, Princeton Symphony Orchestra began its concert season outdoors. With indoor halls in the area limited or closed to large audiences, the Orchestra presented its opening concert of the 2021-22 season at Princeton’s Morven Museum and Garden Pool House, featuring the Philadelphia-based Jasper String Quartet performing three chamber works to an outdoor audience. Violinists J Freivogel and Karen Kim, violist Andrew Gonzalez, and cellist Rachel Henderson Freivogel played a program of Florence Price and Maurice Ravel, as well as a work by a unique composer fusing classical and indigenous American music.  

The chamber music of early 20th-century American composer Florence Price has been popular in this past year of outdoor-only concerts, and the Jasper Quartet opened last Thursday night’s performance with Price’s String Quartet in G Major. Playing from a gazebo to an audience seated on Morven’s back lawn, the Jasper musicians were able to bring out the quirkiness of Price’s harmonic language as well as the rich melodies which mark this composer’s works. The Quartet played melodic themes with consistent forward motion, with teasing trills from the violins and an ensemble sound which became richer as the music progressed. The second movement’s free and open theme reflected Price’s extensive repertory of songs, contrasted by a fast-moving and playful section. Cellist Henderson Freivogel provided a particularly solid foundation to close the work under violist Gonzalez’s rich viola playing and the nimble fingering of the two violinists.  

Composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma and maintains a string commitment to the nurturing and development of American Indian classical composition. Frequently commissioned by musical organizations nationwide, Tate is particularly known for infusing classical music with American Indian nationalism. Tate’s chamber work Pisachi, Six Epitomes for String Quartet, was commissioned in 2013 by the avant-garde string quartet ETHEL, and was conceived as part of a multi-media presentation. Pisachi, whose title is the Chickasaw word for “reveal,” draws from Hopi and Pueblo Indian musical rhythms and forms for its musical language.  

The Jasper String Quartet players began Pisachi with an almost imperceptible violin, as a subtle viola solo barely won out in an auditory competition with an overhead airplane. Violinist Freivogel provided a very high violin part against the rumbling accompaniment of the other players, and the quartet opened the six “epitomes” with a consistently straight tone, emphasizing dynamic contrasts and effects. In the second movement, the Quartet played quick and agitated unison passages with dynamic intensity, suggesting horses galloping across a Western backdrop. Violist Gonzalez provided intricate double stops to the third movement and was also featured in the closing “epitome,” leading the ensemble through musical effects including undulating cello and viola passages which supported very delicate upper strings.   more